I’m doing it backwards!

In past posts, I have discussed differing writing styles, tendencies, and trends that I have in comparison to other writers. The “way” they tell you to do it in books. The “best practices” that are instructed in writers conferences or even in schools (although it has been 34 years since I last took a Creative Writing class).

I am a big advocate for doing what works best for the individual. By the time you are connected to an editor through a publisher, your “style” may be forced to change to meet the deadlines placed before you. In the meantime, until you get to that point, write as you wish.

If I actually paid attention to the books and the instruction, I would have to admit that I am doing things…backward! Assuming that the editing and revising process is for chipping away at a bunch of extra stuff you threw in on the first draft, a la a NaNoWriMo effort, all subsequent drafts are a purge and a cleanse. However, I am creating characters and telling a story in my first draft and am driven to just, for lack of a better description, getting it out.

In both my first historical crime fiction, “Ark City Confidential”, as well as the recently completed follow-up, I have come to realize that I am adding on to drafts two and three before purging and cleaning in draft four and onward. I look for logic errors in terms of character description or designation, add scene enhancements to color and flavor, maybe even throw in a red herring I hadn’t considered before.

I remember seeing a video on YouTube by Les Edgerton, who I had met at the OWFI conference a couple of years ago. He was fascinating and had some definitive ideas about writing. In the video, he talked about the process of being meticulous in his first draft in terms of sentence structure, word choice, and storytelling. There was an absolute precision about the first draft, no matter how long it took.

While I respect Les and his craft, that doesn’t work for me. Some people might point to his publishing success as an end result of his process. While there may be a correlation, I enjoy writing, the process of writing, and the craft. Publishing is a by-product of that process. So, while I respect and admire teachers of any sort, I also recognize the myriad methodologies that exist and the countless writers honing their craft.

Direction is a matter of perspective. Am I doing it backwards? Depends upon your point of view.

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Wow!

Today was the release date for my Prohibition-era crime novel, Ark City Confidential.

That was the first Wow!

From the time I announced signing a contract (on my birthday, no less) to the past six weeks of blog posts, cover reveals, teasers, info, and a book trailer, there has been an amazing response, a kind of enthusiastic encouragement mixed with anticipation.

That’s been an ongoing Wow!

But today: co-workers with hugs and pats on the back; messages from family locally and afar; comments from old friends and newer ones; and responses from Facebook friends I have not yet met. I think there is a realization that writers are not out to compete so much as succeed. Granted, every writer has a different definition of success. However, I take most of these comments to mean “Hey, you did it. You accomplished something. You should be proud of yourself.”

And I am. And that’s been the biggest Wow! of all.

The Commitment

April was National Poetry Month. I haven’t written all that much new poetry since my days in Boston over 20 years ago. A piece here and there as something inspired me. Concurrent with that, a Facebook friend sent out a challenge for a daily minimum of 10 minutes worth of writing. I came up with a poetic idea and accepted the challenge, feeling guilty that it wasn’t fiction and, in some cases, I wrote such a brief amount. Nevertheless, this was worthwhile.

Inspired by Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, my idea was called “A Month of Sundays in Stevensville.” It was to be impressionistic snippets of what Sunday meant to me, in the distant past as well as the present. I found that it became increasingly difficult as the month went on. But I succeeded and paid homage to National Poetry Month while motivating those within the Facebook challenge.

I used to participate in NaNoWriMo and found it to be entirely useful in motivating a daily writing goal. I know these sort of things are important, especially if you find yourself in a position where “real life” is encroaching too much on your creative life. I have also learned how to integrate both which is why I do not create daily writing goals.

This does not mean that I am not motivated or that I am not committed to my efforts, regardless of what others on social media may think. You can be committed to writing every day. There is Stephen King’s famous quote about that. However, like NaNoWriMo, simply putting words to paper (if you’re Old School) does not mean a novel is finished after X amount of words or pages.

When I do sit at my laptop, I am investing my all into the work at hand, becoming annoyed at an interruption, discarding thoughts of food or anything else from the outside world. I have stepped, like Alice, into my own personal Wonderland and that is where I must be.

All I have described is my personal preferences, how I work and prefer to work. The most important thing is to be committed to your writing in a fashion that suits you. The commitment is everything.

Year-End Reflections

This time last year, I was in a dull funk as far as writing was concerned. Earlier in the year, I had started work on a historical crime fiction. It was to be a challenge for me but one I deemed worthwhile. I had to deal with selling my late parents’ home long distance. The process started out rather simple then devolved into chaos and confusion coupled with unprofessional people who I needed to trust. By the time that was resolved, it was the madness of the holiday season.
But in May, I recharged, going down to Oklahoma for my fourth OWFI conference, hooking up with my friend, Nick Lyon, meeting the amazing Les Edgerton, and generally reminding myself that I was still a writer.
Well, I completed the first draft of that book and am on the second edit now. John Lennon said it best: Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. I’m just fortunate to have been able to get back to those plans.

Les Edgerton

9 mm Centerpiece

I moved to Wichita, KS twenty years ago from Boston, MA. Yet, I find this community as filled with artistic talent. I’ve met writers and poets, sculptors and artists, musicians — the gamut of what truly invigorates me. My wife and I had season tickets for several years to the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, regular attended shows at Music Theater Wichita, saw Cirque du SoleilTHREE times, and attended some great concerts over the past year at the historic Orpheum Theater.
But something makes me feel I haven’t explored as much of the arts scene as I could have and definitely should have. John Donne indicated that no man is an island unto himself. No man or no one interested in developing their art. I know I need to get out there more and meet some more people in this community who are passionate about creating something special and are urged on by a compulsion that can not be defined.

Why is it so difficult to disagree any more? Notice how I didn’t ask why we can’t get along. Personally, I think that’s overrated. But we seem to have lost our ability to disagree, civilly and intellectually. There is a pervasive attitude of “If you’re not with me, you’re against me” as opposed to “I disagree, but let’s hear what you have to say.” You see it in politics and in every aspect of contemporary culture, especially Facebook.
I went on a rant recently regarding something rather innocuous. A lady (who was a Facebook friend because she was a friend of a friend) commented, as was her right to do so. When the commentary started to become personal, I took offense. If you know me and can “analyze” me, fine. If you don’t know me, it’s best to stay away from that line of response. And I said so.
A couple of weeks later, after the rant had fully passed from my mind, I recalled with childish humor the whole exchange. I looked up the lady. Sure enough she had unfriended me. I figured it was her loss because I feel I am interesting and a good conversationalist. The real point is that she could not accept my comment on her comment and left.
Disagreement is not dissension.

I find myself more intrigued by experimental fiction. Metafiction, transgressive fiction, fonts and colors, non-linear story-telling. I still maintain my passion for noir and hard-boiled. Yet, I use the alternative styles as a playful experiment and wind up discovering something new.
I am fortunate to be friends with Eckhard Gerdes on Facebook and I follow an Experimental Fiction group. These writers are light years ahead of me but my fascination is part of the learning process. At 53, I am content to know that I am not stuck in a groove and have miles to go before I sleep.

The Process (and how to achieve it)

I was recently helping a friend with a non-fiction project: a series of workplace anecdotes that I thought was going to be interesting, funny, and successful. In talking with him, I did something that I don’t often do: I outlined and detailed The Process. I tend to know, to feel, to sense what I need to do. To actual say it out loud is daunting and makes you question what you’re doing. This is what I told him:

-Write as many of these stories as possible. You’re going to wind up with crap that you’ll throw out.
-Look for an editor to review all the stories plus help you organize it into a cohesive unit for maximum reader enjoyment.
-Visualize a cover, a title, and perhaps illustrations or photos.
-Look for an agent or a small press. Make sure to consider those who work in your genre.
-Consider a marketing plan, whether it’s social media or book signings or former co-workers.

After indicating all this to him, I realized The Process is not linear. It’s not an ABC type of thing. Every time I see a writer friend on Facebook mention a recent publication or acceptance by an agent, mt first thought is “Great! Now get back to writing.” The Process is more like a Mobius strip. Writing, editing, selling, marketing may be to some a very specific system. There are writers who prefer the sense of completion and closure. To me, this seems to stifle the true Creative Urge.

I tend to sense when a work is as complete as I can achieve without obsessing over it for the remainder of my life. I have stories, countless stories, waiting patiently to be heard. I have a desire to sell my work. I am eager to network in order to meet other writers and artists and share commentary. All of this can not be accomplished by numbering these events 1-2-3.

So, perhaps I gave my friend an incomplete assessment of his forthcoming project. I should have advised him “You have to do this, this, and this…all at the same time.”

The lingering after effects

The 2015 OWFI Conference officially ended Saturday May 2. A full three days later, my Facebook feed is still blowing up with comments and photos and shared feelings of fun and rejuvenation. This is a good thing.

However, it is more important to take that kinetic energy and focus it into the kind of controlled discipline that it takes to be a successful writer. Not just for a few days or weeks after a great conference, but ongoing, continuous, like a snowball rolling down a mountain, gathering momentum and size and speed.

Many years ago, it would be far too easy for me to wind down, so to speak, and fall back into the lurching movement of contemporary life with all the tedium and routine that it is known for. As I get older, I realize quite painfully that I do not have as much time to achieve what has always been my dream. Opportunities will be fewer and further apart. This is the time. Now.

Oh, I’ll continue to be responsible, go to work on time, every day, do the job possible. I’ll continue planning a menu, going shopping, making dinner, doing the dishes. The necessary tasks of a homeowner will be accomplished. But the eye will be clear and focused; the hand will sweep away the wasted time; and the heart will proceed forward.

These are not lingering after effects. This is the fuel for the future.

I don’t know what it is, but it’s new.

We have so many expressions to describe changes in our lives. A new beginning. Turning over a new leaf. A fresh start. And too often we use the arbitrary time period of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day to make declarations, those ever-present resolutions. I am not entirely certain that I have begun anew. Rather, transitioned or morphed, continuously progressed as both a person and a writer and artist. Let’s make some declarations to identify the current mind-set.

Initially, this blog was to allow me to discuss my two passions: writing and cooking. I have shared some interesting pictures and recipes but I have already encountered so many other blogs who are far more passionate regarding their culinary pursuits. They spend far more time photographing and offering recipes that I will have to leave you with my favorite expression — It’s All About The Food! — and leave it at that. At heart, I am a writer and an artist. Whereas I always want to be known as a person who makes a tasty dish, I’d rather ultimately be known for my art. That being said, this blog will focus on The Writing Life and my experiences within that realm.

I am no longer actively involved with any writing groups. For six years I was a member of one, going so far as to be president for 10 months. Unfortunately, the rigors of the position, the lack of participation from most of the other board members, and the sense that it was more of a social and networking group dedicated solely to getting published, left a bitter taste in my mouth. As the new year begins, I will not renew my membership. I have left their Facebook page as it no longer offers me anything of benefit. There was another local group that I thought of joining. Unfortunately, at their recent conference, there was a pathetic plea to acquire newer and younger members. Parallel to that was the almost obliviousness that these older folks had no clue as to what the newer and younger members want or need.

I prefer to spend my time in smaller groups, at poetry readings where people of all ages and all types meet and, working through their nerves, read their work hoping for validation, commentary, suggestion, and encouragement. These people focus on craft, the art of writing, far more than the immediacy of publication and the corresponding marketing that is necessary. I have, for the past six months, been involved in a critique group. This comes nearly twenty years after the passion of being surrounded by poets in Boston in the mid 90’s. Friends who would read your work over and over as you would for them. Scintillating conversations that led to real development. Now, older and hopefully wiser, I recognize the benefits of my small group.

Writing conferences still hold value for me. I will be attending the same one for the third year in a row this year, going back with product to sell and discuss, and reconnecting with some very interesting writers who have become friends. This is the best of all worlds.

There is no way for me to denigrate NaNoWriMo. My first attempt was in 2007. Five years later, that effort (after much revision) became “Swan Song”. The weekend after Thanksgiving, during a promo through BookBub, it rose to #2 on Amazon’s ranking of free e-books.

By the same token, I undertook the 30 day challenge at a time when I needed to jump-start my writing. I continued for five more years, “winning” each time. However, the last three efforts lacked any viable story elements to continue construction/reconstruction/editing. It proved I could do it. I started thinking of Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” continually writing “All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy’ and calculated that composing that sentence 5000 times would make me a NaNoWriMo winner. I no longer need to jump-start my writing and I no longer wish to write at such a pace. The craft of writing dictates a more meticulous approach, one that is both calculating and passionate, one that savours the sound and feel of the words more than their weight.

So, I did not participate in 2013 and I do not intend to participate for the foreseeable future. I’m working on a different timetable and the people I associate with are as passionate about the craft and art of writing as I am.

I am going to explore more of the world of social networking as much as I can within the time constraints of being a married homeowner who is a full-time employee. I’ve added Instagram and Tumblr to my repertoire and will attempt to tweet more often. My hope is to find more like-minded people: artists of any sort (writers, poets, musicians, photographers, etc.) who have a definite passion for their craft and can appreciate the inter-connectivity between these media as well as mathematics and science. I know we can create something greater by piecing together ALL that is around us.

My personal goals are shared between myself and my loved ones. This venue is for writers and artists. Let’s talk. Let’s share ideas. I welcome all who currently follow to reply and let us all know where you are at with your work; what you want to achieve; how we can be a resource for your efforts. Knowing how much joy I get from reading and critiquing others’ works and how it makes me better has made me enjoy being a ‘teacher’ and mentor as much as a motivator.

So, is this a new leaf, a fresh start? No, not really. It’s just me, H.B. Berlow, Writer and Artist, moving forward. And it will be all new.

Photo montage as a form of book marketing.

Many people are familiar with book trailers as a way to promote one’s work. I’ve got two that I’ve created, one for Kansas Two-Step and another for Quick.

But I got the idea to do a photo montage on Facebook in which images, closely resembling scenes from the book, would be posted, along with a page number and quote. It is far more brief than a book trailer and perhaps easier to accomplish. I realize that the concept of motion and music might be more powerful to some. however, with the right image and a tantalizing quote, this marketing tool might just as easily capture someone’s attention.

For those not one of my friends on Facebook, here it is. Any feedback or comments would be greatly appreciated.

P. 27 “And maybe it was just sour grapes because I lived in a combination loft/efficiency/office in a crummy old building on Douglas just outside of Old Town.”


P. 26 “I’d like to say that I was blown away by the architectural splendor of the house design or the magnificence of the landscaping. However, the superlatives would have been wasted. Each home had the same “trying-to-outdo-you” attitude making the whole effect moot.”


P. 38 “The garage door was open, the punching bag was swinging, and Gregg was lying down on the weight bench doing 200 lb. presses. The grey t-shirt-with-ripped-off-sleeves was covered with sweat and the ‘ooh’ was followed by the ‘aah’ as he lifted.


P. 78 “I paid my bill quickly and left. I walked down to Old Town Square and sat on a bench and stared at the shooting waters fountain.”


P. 45 “The early news on the NBC affiliate reported a body found in a field off E. 61st St. and North Broadway not too far from I-35. Nothing unusual about a murder except the severity of the assault.”


P. 168 “Still running the porn lines?” “Not enough money in that business. No, we reacquainted ourselves with some of our former colleagues. We have a lovely fenced-in house with a pool out in Goddard. It’s on a large piece of land so we have a lot of privacy.”


P. 152 “I hack into public and private databases to find out information which is useful to my clients who are usually shyster lawyers looking to get huge settlements in divorce cases.”


P. 14 “I sit here most of the day at my trusty computer. Occasionally, I go to the library or the Epic Center. More often than not, I go to Old Town for lunch and a beer. But I figure it’s within walking distance so it’s easy to stumble back here.”

The Madness that IS NaNoWriMo

Well, another November has passed and another “successful” attempt at NaNoWriMo. By that I mean I write a 50,000 word “novel” within the thirty day time frame. That’s five years in a row. Woo hoo! Drop the confetti and break out the champagne. I just won the Super Bowl.

A bit of sarcasm? Yes, certainly. And for several reasons. The first is that 50,000 words is not really a novel, more like a novella. When Colleen Lindsay was still a literary agent, I sent her a query letter. It asked for the number of words. My manuscript was between 50 and 60 thousand words. I got back an automated response indicating that it was too short. She didn’t even read my query; good, bad, or indifferent, her computerized system decided to filter me out. So either she was extremely picky or Chris Baty (founder of NaNoWriMo) is lying about 50,000 words being a novel.

Second, what kind of writing is it that puts you on such a heated deadline and expects something resembling a story? That’s the point. There is no sense to be made of it. You could be like Jack Nicholson from The Shining and just right “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” five thousand times and, voila, you’ve won NaNoWriMo.

Third, after you’ve done it a few times, it’s not about be able to finish but doing it in the quickest time possible. The tenth, twelfth, fourteenth of the month and you are a certified hero to your NaNo friends. What if, at the stroke of midnight on October 31, having consumed copious amounts of your favorite caffeine, started writing just about anything, would it be possible to complete it in one day?

There is the positive side. it forces you to sit down and write, perhaps not totally meaningless yet not as structured as you would like. It does give you a sense of accomplishment. It’s good training for freelancers who want to know what it’s like to work on a deadline.

As far as the overall quality, pay no attention at all to that first so-called draft. It’s worthless. My first three efforts have undergone revision and still (in my mind, at least) have some merit. Last year’s had great characters and a good concept but the story was so highly illogical with subplots started and stopped in the same chapter and minor characters brought in like deus ex machina.

This year, I was on vacation for the first five days of the month and I still wanted to compete. So I outlined twenty-five chapters of two thousand words each, knowing that if I stuck to my schedule I would “win”. On top of that, I wrote early on weekends and doubled up on some evenings. All for the sake of a 50,000 word story to upload and be verified so I could print up a cute certificate and download some impressive badges for use on Facebook and my website and my blog. Gee whiz!

I can’t wait until next year.

“What do we do now?”

In the 1972 movie The Candidate, an idealistic lawyer played by Robert Redford is persuaded to run for the Senate against a popular incumbent. He’s given free rein to run his campaign as he sees fit, until he starts to become a viable candidate. At the end of the movie, after winning the election he sits glumly in his hotel room rather than confident and proud. He speaks to his campaign manager who is surrounded by a throng of people and asks “What do we do now?”

Well, I’m feeling that same way. I’ve realized the needs and requirements of being a writer in this contemporary digital age and have followed through accordingly. I have dipped my toes in the waters of Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter and Kindle. I have set up my own website and added links to, well, me out in the world of cyberspace.

What do I do now?

The interesting thing is that I know what to do and it involves regular management, as though I were diabetic and needed to test my blood sugar. There is no longer the casual get-together with writers in coffee shops smoking clove cigarettes and contemplating the modern version of ancient Roman classics. (Yes, I did all that.)

There is a new world of tweets and posts and entries and connections and networking. I KNOW what to do. It’s time to get around to doing it.

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